On Monday, February 6, as part of Columbia’s Rare Book & Manuscript Library’s Curatorial Shorts programming, author and urban culture documentarian Kurt Boone shared more about his collection of oral histories on mass incarceration.

Mass incarceration continues to be one of the most pressing issues in the United States and worldwide, being at the forefront of public discourse in recent years. As a result, now more than ever, it is necessary to provide a critical analysis of all its implications, taking the time to really understand what mass incarceration entails for everyone touched by it.

Precisely, this is what poet, urban culture collector, and documentarian Kurt Boone sought to do in his “Mass Incarceration Oral History Collection, 2018-2019” for the Oral History Archives at Columbia (OHAC). This collection compiles eight interviews with eight different members of his family who have been involved in any way with the law enforcement system—whether because they have been incarcerated, work in the field, or have other close family members who have been incarcerated. 

This virtual Curatorial Short—which spotlights Boone and was moderated by Kimberly Springer, OHAC curator and Term Associate Professor in Barnard College’s American Studies Department—is part of a program established by Columbia’s Rare Book & Manuscript Library (RBML) with the purpose of showcasing and offering insight into its great oral collections. Boone’s work is particularly significant for RBML as, according to Dr. Springer, the voices of incarcerated people are largely missing at the University.

Initially, this project was going to be centered on collecting oral histories about the anti-mass incarceration movement as a way to oppose the mass imprisonment of historically marginalized groups. It was rather fascinating to listen to Boone and Dr. Springer explain the project’s evolution and the change that came with the realization that anti-positioning had the potential to close off a lot of valuable experiences, including that of Boone’s relatives. This decision led to the possibility of telling these very personal stories from a very human perspective and thereby capturing details that could otherwise have been easily overlooked.

Why oral history? Boone explained that what pushed him to tell his family members’ stories of incarceration and love through an oral history was the uniqueness of hearing peoples’ experiences through their own voices. For him, what mattered was oral history’s personalization and the invaluable opportunity of being close to the person who is part of the story.

Boone’s eight interviews, conducted in 2018 and 2019, cover the inner lives of mothers, fathers, children, and even the inner workings of multiple institutions. In this way, these interviews allowed for more layered interpretations, from the discussion of the impact of incarceration on families to the carceral system’s focus on punishment. As Dr. Springer perfectly put it, the interviews are an “intriguing mix” of interpersonal connections and the choices that we make and have available in this capitalist, punishment-centered system. The range of experiences within Boone’s family is very remarkable, certainly leaving room for this kind of exploration.

After some discussion of Boone’s thoughts and motivations, the speakers opened the floor for participants’ questions. The first question that came up was, “Did the idea of pushing back what is a crime come up in any of the interviews?” The answer was simple: the definition of crime can (and has) changed over time. This was particularly interesting when considering both the recent decriminalization of marijuana and the context of the interviews where many of Boone’s relatives, like Akilah who was arrested when she was 17 for carrying drugs to North Carolina for a friend, were imprisoned as a result of the War on Drugs. 

The next question allowed Boone to highlight what truly stands at the heart of his project—what he hopes listeners can take away from the interviews is that love and family are the most important. As mentioned by several of his interviewees, they could only come back from the impact of incarceration because of their family’s unassailable support and unconditional love. Boone is proud to admit that his family is a unit that stands strong. As he eloquently puts it, “Love is conquering it all regardless of this mass incarceration system.”

This event ended with a brief clip from an interview with Boone’s cousin Iris. She powerfully argued that therapy and treatment must be part of the system, advocating for the importance of teaching people how to live after prison. It should not be about punishment, but about correction. Society should not disregard incarcerated people, but try to understand them. 

Boone’s oral history collection provides a powerful reminder of the real repercussions of mass incarceration on marginalized communities. His work offers us an invaluable opportunity to explore this issue from a familial, human-centered lens, encouraging us to change our perspectives and always dig deeper.

Kurt Boone via Wikimedia Commons